In Zimmerman trial, the right verdict, the wrong law

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Former prosecutors and defense attorneys in Pennsylvania alike said that despite the flood of emotions surrounding the George Zimmerman trial, the verdict was nothing more than the result of the evidence, or lack thereof, presented in the courtroom.

But they differed on the effects and necessity of laws like Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

Former longtime Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said opinions run the gamut on this case, but to her the issue is more fundamental.

"The prosecution failed," she said.

Ms. Abraham said she may not always agree with a jury verdict and sometimes "justice doesn't win the day," but she said the jury tried to do the right thing based on the evidence presented to it.

"This case has to be looked at on what happened in the courtroom," she said. "I thought that the prosecution just absolutely utterly failed in its burden of proof. Witness after witness who came to testify for the prosecution [ended up helping] the defense."

Ms. Abraham said "there's no greater message" from the case than that the prosecution didn't meet its burden of proof and the jury found accordingly.

Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Engle said that, while Mr. Zimmerman's Florida murder trial for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin became polarizing because of the racial issues attached to it, this case was really no different than the many other murder trials in the country in which the defendant asserts self-defense.

Mr. Engle noted investigators initially felt there wasn't enough evidence to charge Mr. Zimmerman because of Florida's self-defense law, known as the Stand Your Ground law. He was only later charged after a public outcry.

"We put this guy through a murder trial because it was the thing to do, because the community was outraged," he said. "If you look at the law and testimony, it was a clear-cut self-defense case and the jury absolutely got it right."

Mr. Engle noted that was his position as an attorney. He said, however, he didn't like the fact that there was a "wannabe" cop out there carrying a gun for a neighborhood watch, nor does he like the fact that there are so many people allowed to carry concealed weapons.

"I don't agree with what Mr. Zimmerman did ... I don't think he should have been following anyone," Mr. Engle said.

Mr. Zimmerman didn't raise Florida's Stand Your Ground law defense, which takes away a person's duty to retreat from a situation in which he or she feels his or her life is in danger. He raised traditional self-defense principles.

In 2011, Pennsylvania amended its castle doctrine, which historically allowed for claims of self-defense when protecting oneself in a home or car, to include other locations as long as the victim felt he or she was facing death or serious bodily injury.

Such deadly force is allowed in those situations outside the home or car in Pennsylvania when a person has reasonable belief of imminent death or injury, and either he or she cannot retreat in safety, or the attacker displays or uses a lethal weapon, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Florida, the Stand Your Ground law takes away any duty to retreat before deadly force can be used in any place the shooter has a right to be. Approximately 25 states have versions of a stand-your-ground law or castle doctrine, each with its own requirements for when deadly force can be used as self-defense.

Mr. Engle said stand-your-ground legislation is very "defense-oriented," and favors an individual's right to use deadly force. In Pennsylvania, unlike in Florida, defendants would still have to address the issue of whether they had the ability to retreat, though there are exceptions for when they don't have to retreat, he said.

Stand-your-ground laws leave "a lot of room for ambiguity in Pennsylvania," said Billy Smith of Bowman and Partners, a former prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney, adding that ambiguity can only be addressed through a careful analysis of the facts of each case. He said decisions on whether to charge under these laws should be made in concert with attorneys, and not just done by law enforcement.

Drexel University law professor Donald Tibbs said Pennsylvania's law has placed some limitations that Florida doesn't have in an effort to prevent Pennsylvania from "turning into the wild, wild West."

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Gina Passarella: gpassarella@alm.com or 215-557-2494. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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